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Noughts & Crosses

Malorie Blackman adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz
Pilot Theatre
Northern Stage

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Kimisha Lewis as Minerva, Chris Jack as Kamal and Doreene Blackstock as Jasmine Credit: Robert Day
Billy Harris as Callum and Heather Agyepong as Sephy Credit: Robert Day
The cast of Noughts and Crosses Credit: Robert Day

I’ve never read Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel but wish I had. Its premise is a provocative one: a UK turned on its head and run by a black elite (The Crosses) while the underprivileged white underclass (The Noughts) plots guerrilla action and violent terrorist resistance. Add a Romeo & Juliet tale of forbidden love between white boy and privileged black girl and the potential grows.

And with no fewer than five theatre companies involved in the production, there’s obviously a few bob to chuck around. Simon Kenny’s set is built around three huge walls of dramatic red blocks, which can suddenly become banks of video screens or live TV transmissions or open up like lockers, or be divided by strips of light. Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting overall is innovative, making strong use of infrared (the play’s dominant colour) and coming at us from all angles, never content with a general wash when something more ambitious might work. And the sound / music from Arun Ghosh and Xana, more cinema than theatre in its soundtrack regularity, while occasionally overloud, is often powerful stuff.

Technically then, much, as they say, to admire.

So why am I not swept away with Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation on the main stage at Northern Stage? Why some unease? Mainly because I never feel the play, directed by Esther Richardson, has enough of a beating heart to go with its social political and racial concerns and its technical showmanship. We know exactly what each character feels about the political situation, but not much more than that; they are too closely defined by their one role in the play. I can’t say I was that much bothered about them. This is partly due to the writing. I would have loved to know, say, what one of them ate for breakfast. A daft example maybe, but the kind of humanising small detail that can push warm blood through the veins.

And whatever else a play may achieve, whatever technical wizardry it may impress us with, if it falls short on characterisation, there’s always a problem.

Ironically, characters do constantly turn to the audience to speak of their predicament. This device in theory should mean we relate to them more. In practice we relate to them less and odd times it made me feel like shouting, "just get on with the play!"

At two hours and 20 minutes, it is too long and takes itself too seriously. Almost every character manifests a relentless intensity. Light and shade please.

Heather Agyepong plays Sephy with Billy Harris as Callum—the star-crossed lovers whose chemistry I confess, remains low-key. Sephy’s dad (Kimisha Lewis) is the Home Secretary and a slippery character to boot. The screw turns more when Callum, who becomes part of the terrorist group Liberation Militia, is ordered to kidnap—and possibly kill—the woman he loves. The cast of seven also has Lisa Howard, Jack Condon and Daniel Copeland as insurrectionists with Kimisha Lewis and Doreene Blackstock as black elite. But while the production takes root in my brain well enough, it has more problems finding houseroom in the heart. At times, such as the two hanging scenes, it looks brilliant.

The play is co-produced with Pilot Theatre by Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre, Mercury Theatre Colchester and York Theatre Royal, a quintet of a co-production which only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. But hard-pressed theatre companies are needing to find safety in numbers these days. They have my sympathies. Maybe we’ll soon end up with one national production co-produced by every single company. That kind of cost-cutting efficiency should keep the accountants happy.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer